Phoenix isn't exactly the first place I think of when I want fresh fish. But there's one fish dish that's I've found to be consistently decent here, perhaps owing to the fact that it's deep-fried: popcorn shrimp. It's a great little starter, the perfect appetizer to kick off a good seafood meal (or make you forget the rest of a bad one).
For this week's Battle of the Dishes, we went in search of seafood joints known for their popcorn shrimp.
In One Corner: King's Fish House at the Tempe Marketplace
35 S. McClintock Dr. in Tempe
I'd been dying to try the California-based King's Fish House since it popped up at the Tempe Marketplace a couple of years ago. My significant other was put off by the fishy smell wafting 24/7 from the place, so I'd never made it there. But with the promise of something fried, I managed to drag him to King's for a cozy little date.
The place is larger than it looks on the outside, with a few separate dining rooms and little nooks crammed with gleaming dark wood furniture and cozy booths. There's a large dining porch covered in clear plastic for all-weather use, and decorative fish plaques on the walls, just in case you want to know what your dinner looks like au naturel. My sweetie and I settled into a small booth for two and ordered up the popcorn shrimp.
Apparently at King's, "shrimp" is more than just the type of meat you'll get -- it's a description of the size of the serving. A white platter tossed with a handful of battered and fried shrimp arrived at our table. The lemon wedge and cup of sauce took up most of the empty space on the plate, but for ten bucks we expected a little more food.
We hungrily dug into the fried nuggets. "It's buttery," remarked my date, "and the breading is good, but I could get this for a lot less at Long John Silver's." Ouch! He wasn't far off on the breading being similar to LJS, though the quality of the shrimp meat at King's is far superior. Even the smaller, lower grade beauties they use for popcorn shrimp.
The breading was a cross between panko bread crumbs and a hush puppy batter; crisp and golden, with a sweet undertone. The shrimp was fresh enough to avoid tasting of iodine or Swamp Thing. But there was a lack of the "zing" factor: no delicate spice blend or beer batter to propel this dish above standard pub grub quality. The zesty tartar sauce was the only saving grace. Well, that and the outstanding service. Our server was polite and efficient, and even the manager came over to check on us -- a formerly commonplace occurrence I haven't experienced in a while.
In the Other Corner: Knock Kneed Lobster
3202 E. Washington Street in Phoenix
Talk about contrasts. Both King's Fish House and Knock Kneed Lobster came recommended by Yelpers, Urbanspoonies, Chowhounds and the like, but the two places are a world apart. I gave my dining companion of the day the chance to back out as we walked up to a grimy white building in a seedy industrial district of East Phoenix peppered with "massage" parlors and strip joints. We took a deep breath and walked in.
Guy Fieri should check out Knock Kneed Lobster the next time he passes by the PHX, because this place certainly qualifies as a dive. Or a "shrimp and fish shack," as the longtime owners call it. It's an order-at-the-counter joint with dingy, food-splattered walls, tacky seaside decor with layers of dust an inch thick and horribly pixelated photos of sailboats and seashores. Mmm, mmm, we just couldn't wait to eat here.
My dining companion and I ordered up a large plate of popcorn shrimp n' chips and waited for our number to be called. It was kind of like sitting at the doctor's office -- you sit for a while and when they finally beckon you forth, you start thinking of reasons to back out.
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We were pleasantly surprised by the heaping pile of shrimp and french fries we received, and the health inspection silver star we noticed on the wall of the kitchen. Maybe we could overlook the grime. The building has been around for decades, after all. We divided the dish on two plates and dug in.
"These are pretty good," said my friend. "The breading is really traditional; a little buttery and greasy but tasty." For $6.95, this was actually a smokin' deal. The breading was bland (no real spices again!) but it was crunchy and golden. Unfortunately, there was too much of it. I swear I didn't get any actual shrimp in a few smaller morsels, just breading. And the cocktail sauce was extremely watered down.
There was less shrimp meat in each bite than in the King's version, but when you look at the huge pile of shrimp at KKL vs. the pitiful wad at King's, the amount of meat equalizes. King's meat tasted a little fresher, but the shrimp at KKL were still very good for a dive. And you can't ignore the value. $6.95 for a platter of bland popcorn shrimp with fries is certainly better than $10 for a smaller plate of equally average shrimp.
The Winner: King's Fish House, if you're on a date or taking your mother-in-law/boss/etc. out to impress. Otherwise, skip the fancy details and grab some cheap and tasty grub (likely with leftovers) at Knock Kneed Lobster.